Reading Old Irish
The Values of the Letters

The challenge of reading Old Irish orthography can be briefly stated: all the letters representing consonants have multiple phonemic values. The pronunciation of a letter is determined mainly by its position in relation to other letters in the same word, and in the case of initial letters, by the influence of preceding words.

1. Consonants: Slender and Broad

To begin with, every consonant, with the sole exception of "h", has two variants, traditionally called "broad" and "slender". The slender consonants differ from the broad ones in that they are palatalized, or end with a y-glide. As an example of the difference between them, in some dialects of English the word "tune" is pronounced with a broad "t", so that it might be written "toon", while in other dialects it is pronounced with a slender "t", so that it might be written "tyoon".

In Old Irish spelling, slender consonants are those that are followed by the letters "e" or "i". If the consonant is in final position, it is slender if it is preceded by an "i". All the consonants in these words are slender:

berid /b'er'iD'/ "carries"
céle /k'e:l'e/ "companion, client"
óir /o:r'/ "of gold"

In these words only the letter "d" is slender:

buiden /buD'en/ "company"
delb /d'elv/ "image"
dét /d'e:d/ "tooth"

Note that in phonological transcription, slender quality is shown by an apostrophe following the consonant.

2. Consonants: Voiced Stops

The letters "g, d, b, " share certain orthographical strategies and therefore can be usefully discussed together. When these letters are in initial position, and not influenced by a preceding word, they represent voiced stops. The letter "m", while usually classed as a nasal and not a voiced stop, behaves in many of the same ways and thus will be included here.

gort /gort/ "field"
dún /du:n/ "fortress" [Note: /d/ is a dental stop, tongue against teeth]
bó /bo:/ "cow"
mér /m'e:r/ "finger"

When "g, d, b" are in non-initial position, they stand for the lenited equivalents of the voiced stops:

mug /muG/ "slave"
mod /moD/ "way; work"
dub /duv/ "black"
dam /dav~/ "ox"

If "b" or "m" is written double in non-initial position, however, it retains its voiced stop pronunciation:

abb /ab/ "abbot"
lomm /lom/ "bare"

When a word begins with the letters "g, d, b, m" the initial sound is subject to the mutation called lenition. This occurs under the influence of a preceding word. Lenition is not shown by any change in the spelling, however. For example, the masculine possessive pronoun "a" (= "his") causes lenition:

a gort /a Gort/ "his field"
a dún /a Du:n/ "his fortress"
a bó /a vo:/ "his cow"
a mér /a v~'e:r/ "his finger"

Note the pronunciations of the lenited sounds:

G [usually shown as a gamma] = like a Spanish "g" between vowels

D [usually shown as a delta] = like the "th" in English "there"

v [sometimes shown as beta] = a bilabial "v" (made with both lips rather than the lower lip and the upper front teeth)

v~ [sometimes shown as a mu] = a bilabial "v" with nasalization of the following vowel

(Note that the lenited forms of "g, d, b, m" came to be written "gh, dh, bh, mh" in later Irish. Since these letter combinations were foreign to Latin, however, the writers of Old Irish apparently did not feel comfortable adopting them just yet. In any case, as native speakers of the language, they could usually automatically supply the lenited pronunciation from context.)

Words that begin with the letters "g, d, b" are also subject to another mutation called "eclipsis" or "nasalization". When these letters are eclipsed, again due to the influence of a preceding word, the change is shown in the spelling by the addition of an "n" or "m". The plural possessive pronoun "a" (= "their") causes eclipsis:

a ngort /ang ort/ "their field" [ng as in English "sing"]
a ndún /a Nu:n/ "their fortress"
a mbó /a mo:/ "their cow"

3. Consonants: Unvoiced Stops

The letters "c, t, p", likewise share certain orthographical conventions.

In intial position, these letters represent the unvoiced stops (which correspond to the voiced stops "g, d, b") as follows:

cú /ku:/ "hound"
tol /tol/ "will, wish" [Note: /t/ is a dental stop, tongue against teeth]
póc /po:g/ "kiss"

In non-initial position, these letters stand for the corresponding voiced stops:

loc /Log/ "place"
fot /fod/ "length"
popul /pobul/ "people"

(Note that in later Irish, this rule was jettisoned and the words above came to be spelled "log, fod, pobul", or "log, fad, pobal" in Modern Irish.)

If "c, t, p" are doubled in non-initial position, however, they retain their unvoiced pronunciation:

macc /mak/ "son"
att /at/ "swelling"
sopp /sop/ "wisp"

Words that begin with "c, t, p" are subject to both lenition and nasalizaton (eclipsis). Lenition is shown by a change in spelling:

a chú /a xu:/ "his hound" [x as the "ch" in "loch"]
a chenn /a x'eN/ "his head" [x' as th "ch" in German "ich"]
a thol /a THol/ "his will" [TH (= theta) as the "th" in English "thing"]
a phóc /a fo:g/ "his kiss" [f as a bilabial /f/]

The digraphs "ch, th, ph" also appear, with the same pronunciation, in non-initial position as a permanent component of words:

ech /ex/ "horse"
áth /a:TH/ "ford"
oíph /oif/ "beauty"

When "c, t, p" are eclipsed, however, their is no overt change in the spelling to indicate this mutation. When eclipsed, "c, t, p" are pronounced as their voiced equivalents:

a cú /a gu:/ "their hound"
a tol /a dol/ "their will"
a póc /a bo:g/ "their kiss"

(Note that in Modern Irish eclipsis of "c, t, p" is shown by the addition of the appropriate consonant: "a gcú, a dtoil, a bpóg".)

4. Consonants following "R, L, N":

There is some ambiguity in the value of stop consonants following "r, l, n". For example, "derc" may represent either /derg/ or /derc/, although it was fairly common for scribes to disambiguate them by writing the first as "derg" and the second as "derc".

5. Consonants: "F"

The letter "f" represents a bilabial /f/, as in

fér /f'e:r/ "grass"

When lenited, it is written with a dot over the letter (not shown here), or in later spelling as "fh", and its pronunciation is 'zero'; that is to say, it vanishes entirely:

a fhér /a e:r/ "his grass"

When "f" is eclipsed, it is pronounced as a bilabial "v", but no change is made in the spelling:

a fér /a v'e:r/ "their grass"

(The modern Irish spelling, however, is precise: "a bhféar".)

6. Consonants: "S"

The letter "s" is pronounced as an English "s" when broad:

sacart /sagart/ "priest"

And as an English "sh" when slender:

secht /s'ext/ "seven"

When "s" is lenited, it is written with a dot over it (not shown here), or in later spelling as "sh", and is then pronounced /h/:

a shacart /a hagart/ "his priest"

Words beginning with the letter "s" are not subject to eclipsis.

7. Consonants: "R, L, N"

When in initial position, or when doubled, these letters stand for tense varieties of "r, l, n", sounds that have been preserved in some dialects of modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic. If you don't know how to make these distinctions, you can probably safely ignore them.

rún /Ru:n/ "secret"
corr /koR/ "crane"
loc /Log/ "place"
coll /koL/ "hazel"
nert /N'ert/ "strength"
tonn /toN/ "wave"

In all other cases, or when lenited, the letters "r, l, n" are to be given a lax pronunciation:

cor /kor/ "putting"
a rún /a ru:n/ "his secret"
col /kol/ "sin"
a loc /a log/ "his place"
dán /da:n/ "poem, art, gift"
a nert /a n'ert/ "his strength"

Words beginning with "r, l, n" are not subject to eclipsis.

8. Consonants: "H"

The letter "h" was apparently mute in Insular Latin. When the scribes and scholars wrote Old Irish, they therefore felt free to add a mute "h" to the beginning of any word beginning with a vowel, especially if it was a puny little word like "i" (= in) that needed fattening up. From the evidence of Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic, however, it seems likely that an "h" was in fact pronounced before vowels following certain words, such as "a" meaning "her", so that "a ór" (= her gold) would have been pronounced /a ho:r/. The scribes, for their part, did not choose to show this /h/ in any consistent way. The practical outcome: the letter "h" by itself is meaningless in Old Irish texts, except as a member of the digraphs "ch, th, ph".

9. The Vowels

Old Irish had five short vowels, "a, e, i, o, u" and five long vowels, "á, é, í, ó, ú", which can be roughly said to have Latin or Continental values. There were two common diphthongs, one spelled variously "aé, áe, aí, ái" and the other "oé, óe, oí, ói". These two sets ended up falling together, and can be pronounced either /oi/ or /ai/ as you wish. A third diphthong was "uí", which can be pronounced as it is spelled. The real problem facing a modern reader of Old Irish is the fact that in digraphs such as "ai, ei, éi, ui, ái, ói, úi" the letter "i" may actually only serve to indicate the slender quality of the adjacent consonant. For example, "céle" is commonly written "céile", with the "i" there simply to reinforce the slender value of the "l". If in such cases the "i" is pronounced at all, it is only a light glide vowel.

10. Word Stress

Old Irish, like most dialects of Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic, had a strong stress accent on the first syllable of nouns, adjectives and the absolute forms of verbs. Compound verbs are accented on the first syllable after the first preverb.

11. Sample Text

Manannán is speaking in this stanza from "Immram Brain". This is the restored text according to Séamus Mac Mathúna, and my English. Below it are interlinear versions showing word for word translation and two styles of phonemic transcription. The second style, often called "newspaper phonetics", is very inexact, but may have the virtue of allowing a novice to approach the sound and rhythm of the original.

Caíne amrae lasin mBran
ina churchán tar muir nglan;
os mé im charput do chéin,
is mag scothach imma-réid.
A marvelous beauty it seems to Bran
in his coracle across the clear sea;
For me, in my chariot from afar,
it's a flowered plain he rides about.

Caíne amrae lasin mBran
beauty of-wonder with-the Bran

ina churchán tar muir nglan
in-his coracle across sea clear

os mé im charput do chéin
as-for me in-my chariot from distance

is mag scothach imma-réid
tis plain flowery around-rides

Caíne amrae lasin mBran
koin'e av~re lasin mran

ina churchán tar muir nglan
ina xurxa:n tar mur' nglan

os mé im charput do chéin
os m'e: im xarbud do x'e:n'

is mag scothach imma-réid
is maG skoTHax ima re:D

Caíne amrae lasin mBran
KOY-nay AHV-ray lah-sin MRAHN

ina churchán tar muir nglan
ih-na KHOOR-khawn tahr MOOR NGLAHN

os mé im charput do chéin
os may ihm KHAHR-bood do HAYN

is mag scothach imma-réid
iss MAHGH SKO-thakh ih-ma RAYTH (TH as in 'then')